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Dallas Cowboys at crossroad that could define franchise's future

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Jason Garrett has guided the Dallas Cowboys to a crossroad.

An unexpected 13-5 season has the franchise heading on a path to the Super Bowl. Only shouldering the burden for America's Team is a quarterback with a fractured back.

Yesterday's news that Joseph Randle was cited for marijuana possession on Tuesday morning was a stark reminder of the off-the-field controversies that can ruin even the best laid plans.

Because it's shaping up to be a critical offseason for a Cowboys team that finally has the foundations of a Super Bowl contender.

And Randle, inadvertently, is at the centre of it.

The 23-year-old running back is the man many people believe will replace the NFL's leading rusher DeMarco Murray next season. Murray is a free agent, and with Dez Bryant also on the market, Jerry Jones is expected to send the dollars to Dez.

The rise of the running back by committee has devalued the position in recent seasons - there hasn't been a running back drafted in the first round since 2012.

Randle, a fifth round pick in 2013, was the presumed starter if Murray departed with Lance Dunbar a restricted free agent. The wildcard would be if Jerry was lining up one of Melvin Gordon or Todd Gurley with his first round pick (27th overall). That just got more likely.

The Cowboys owner last drafted an RB first back in 2008, when he reached for Felix Jones, the speedster from his alma mater University of Arkansas. A typical Jerry pick.

But the Dallas chief eschewed his draft-day reputation last year when, against his own judgement, his son, Vice President of Player Personnel Stephen Jones, led the Cowboys to offensive lineman Zach Martin over Johnny Manziel.

That transformed a solid O-Line into the NFL's best, paving the way for Murray to enjoy a superb contract year.

Unless Jerry reverts to form, the Cowboys will be looking defense in April with the secondary and defensive line the main areas to strengthen.

Defense first?

Per Football Outsiders, the Cowboys were solid over the middle in pass defense (-24.1 per cent DVOA vs. league average 13 per cent) but shocking on the left side (19.9 per cent DVOA vs. league average -4.7 per cent), where Brandon Carr was routinely torched on short routes (20.5 per cent DVOA compared to league average -6.8 per cent).

He may be released for cap room this off-season. Like former-first round pick Morris Claiborne, Carr has talent but his play has been too inconsistent to prove it.

Rod Marinelli's D was particularly susceptible to deep balls, and while it wasn't helped by an ineffective pass rush, it's 20.9 per cent DVOA defending deep passes was worse than league average. Secondary help is vital.

That wasn't just Carr's fault though, as the Cowboys were beat for a ugly 68 per cent DVOA on deep passes to the right side. That was typically Orlando Scandrick's area, but the entire secondary was weak downfield. 

The pass rush could do with help too, although the return of the team's best edge defender Anthony Spencer in Week 4 helped out Marinelli's crew - Spencer was huge in the win over the Detroit Lions.

Draft day decisions

So Jerry has options at 27 in the draft. If the Cowboys want to go coverage then they'll be hoping PJ Williams of Florida State or Marcus Peters from Washington are still on the board.

Dan Kadar in his SB Nation mock draft had Williams to the Cowboys at 27. He said: "Williams at the least gives Dallas a good third corner and has the potential to develop into a Pro Bowl player thanks to his length and instincts outside.”

Peters is a high risk pick who reportedly counts Marshawn Lynch as his mentor. The DB has been described as the 'most talented corner in the draft' but was booted off the Washington team for clashes with coaches.

On the D-Line, Owamagbe Odighizuwa of UCLA had the scouts drooling post-Senior Bowl and would be the perfect partner for Demarcus Lawrence.

Edge rusher Markus Golden from Missouri could be in play as well, while Oklahoma DT Jordan Phillips could plug up the middle of the line for years to come if he lives up to the hype.

ESPN's Mel Kiper said: "Phillips is still pretty raw, but he’s got tremendous upside. At 6-foot-6, when you see him run you can barely fathom that he’s carrying more than 330 pounds. Put a kid like this under the tutelage of Rod Marinelli and you could end up with something truly special.”

Free agency

Treated to year after year of ill-advised free agent splurging and draft day misfires, Cowboys fans have every reason to feel a little nervy heading into April. Things went so well this season, it's natural to expect a little regression.

Then you look at their own free agency situation. Rolando McClain is going to get paid after his big year filling in for Sean Lee. The Cowboys say they want to put McClain at middle linebacker and Lee on the weak side.

That would be a formidable duo, but their combined health risk is enormous. McClain put a few struggles aside to piece together his first predominately healthy season since 2011, while Lee's injury history since 2009 reads: two ACL tears, a dislocated wrist, toe surgery and a litany of muscular problems.

The risk is huge, but they're too talented in positions of need for the Cowboys to let walk.

With as many as 23 players up for new contracts this off-season, it's going to be fun keeping up with Stephen Jones and Will McClay's moves. A Tyron Smith restructure and Romo contract adjustment could free up space for flexibility while Cole Beasley should be brought back as a key slot contributor.

There are questions right across the roster though, from Bruce Carter's immediate future to Spencer and Dwayne Harris. But they have the pieces in the locker room to reload for next season, they just need to make sure they keep the right ones.

And then you come to Dunbar and Murray.

If Jerry goes for Dez over Murray as reported, then restricted free agent Dunbar will probably be brought back as a change-of-pace option in the backfield.

Only, that was likely the plan until Randle's citation. How the front office reacts to Randle is crucial to setting the template for this critical off-season.

Offensive skill players - QB apart - are reliant on teammates. Running backs on offensive linemen and wide receivers on quarterbacks. With a monster line in front of him, Randle had proved his ability, rushing 51 times for 343 yards and three TDs in 2014.

But this is not his first offence - the running back got a misdemeanour for shoplifting last October, which resulted in a fine but no suspension. Garrett may now believe he can plug in another back in place of Randle - Smith, Free, Martin and co are that good, so their foundation on offense is solid. Still, that familiarity with Randle would have made it easier to move on from Murray.

This is now strike two for Randle and an awful start to a critical period for the franchise. 

The Cowboys are close to Super Bowl glory, they beat the Seahawks in Seattle last season and finished the regular season with the same record (12-4) as both Super Bowl finalists.

Dez is already working towards it...

But how do you balance long-term planning with the need to 'win-now' under Tony Romo. The Cowboys gunslinger is both the blessing and the curse.

Only Aaron Rodgers was more consistently excellent for his franchise last season, but Romo is 34 and played a good deal of the year with two fractures in his back. It was a superhuman effort. He can't keep fuelling his body on drugs and hoping for the best.

They'll be pressure on the Cowboys front office to make a splash in free agency to support him right now, but they'd be wise to remember the days of Adam Jones and Roy Williams. If Romo goes down and the Cowboys have gorged on fat free agent contracts, then they'll swiftly sink back into the NFC East pit alongside the Giants and Redskins.

This is the worry. Of all the decisions the Cowboys have to make this season - Murray, Dez, free agency, draft, franchise tag, Randle - all of them hinge on Romo.

This is such a big year for them, it must be infuriating for Garrett and McClay to watch a player they likely had earmarked for a big season next year get in trouble with the law already.

Stephen Jones and the front office have positioned the Cowboys into contention, but they've tip-toed across a knife-edge to get there.

They could plummet fast if they fail on just one of these variables. When you're piecing together a contender behind a gifted but banged-up QB, the margins are razor thin.

But that's the thing.

For the first time in a long time, Cowboys' fans go into an off-season with legitimate optimism that next season really can be their year. It's not false hope this time around.

This Randle incident is a wobble, a timely reminder of just how fragile their success may be.

But they're on the right track. The Cowboys are one massive off-season away from Super Bowl contention.

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